In his dream, Zanad was being chased by soldiers and dogs. He scrambled over streams, through briars and into a swamp, but they kept coming. Like they were possessed by dæmons who knew his thoughts, he could not shake them off his trail. The incessant barking of the hounds was a constant reminder. He needed only to look at the palm of his right hand to remember why they chased him.
Zanad bolted straight up in the cot. A pair of strong hands pushed his shoulders back down to the pillow and then adjusted the blankets. Opening his eyes, Zanad found his vision somewhat fuzzy but he could make out the old man who sat next to him, applying a damp, cool cloth to his head. His benefactor had a kindly face, leathered by years of hard work and the sun. His spindly, white hair hung like cobwebs from his head. He was dressed in a coarsely woven tunic, cruder even than Zanad's own. As the old man turned to refresh the cloth in a bowl, Zanad slid his right hand under the blanket.
Before he turned back, the old man said, “Don't waste your strength. Too late for that now. I already done seen it.” The cool cloth came back to Zanad's head followed shortly by a cup of cool water at his lips. “Now you just drink this right down, you hear,” the old man said. Zanad gasped and coughed up some of the water a few times as he drank. “You been in this here cot for two days,” the old man said. “Been dreaming something awful. I suspecting you all right now, seeing as how your fever is broked.”
“Where am I?” Zanad whispered in a dry voice. He was not sure he could be heard and was about to try again when the old man replied.
“That's no good introduction,” the old man said, giving Zanad another drink of water. “Name is Raglok, though you can call me Rag. This here's Lord Durgus' winery. What do I call you?” he asked.
Zanad pushed the blanket back and sat up on his elbows. He was feeling better. “What are you going to do with me?” Zanad asked, ignoring Rag's question.
The old man was not the least put off; instead he smiled and pushed the water to Zanad's lips again. “I know you isn't feeling so good. Not looking too good, neither,” Rag said. “Fever be all through you when you come here. Had to cut off your hair and burn you clothes.” Zanad reached up and felt his head. Where auburn hair had once cascaded down to his shoulders, there was a rough stubble. Combined with his gaunt looks, it should make an adequate disguise, he thought to himself.
“But you listen here,” Rag said. “If I was giving you to the Constable, I do that already. Well, never you mind that. Thank you be coming in time, I'm suspecting,” Rag said. “But I can see you be wanting to get down to business.”
Zanad was starting to feel badly for treating his host so badly. “I'm sorry, Rag. Thank you for everything. I was just anxious…worried about….”
“Yeah, yeah,” Rag interrupted. “You think I bring you to health so I could collects the reward. Well, it no like that. Oh, it crossed my mind, course. Nope. Like I says, I work the grape fields for Lord Durgus. Only one thing in this here world lower than the likes of me, and that be you. A slave.”
The word stung Zanad, especially coming out of Rag's mouth. “This be your death warrant,” Rag said, pulling Zanad's right hand from under the covers and holding the palm upright. There, tattooed into the palm of Zanad's hand was a sunburst, the sign of a slave in this part of the world. “It's mine, too, if anyone catches you here.”
“What do you want me to do?” Zanad said.
“Don't rightly know,” Rag said. “Wish you never come, truth be told. Was life so bad back there translating your master's words that running looked good?”
Six years in the house of his enemy serving as translator, errand boy and kicking post. All because he had been too small to take up his fallen father's sword to defend himself. That had changed, at least. “How did you know…?”
Rag laughed a little. “As sure as Odan has one eye, you speak too fine for a regular field slave and you got no calluses from the fields,” he said. “Well, one thing's for sure, you can't go back the way you came. I picked you up on the banks of the river. Washed right up there, you did. Thought you was dead at first, but you made tough.” Rag paused for a moment and grimaced as if he was embarrassed by what he had to say next.
“Look, you've got to go,” he blurted out. “Lord Durgas be coming back soon and he'll be wanting a look around. I put a bag together with some food, and you can have these,” he said, putting three copper coins on the blanket.
With some effort, Zanad pushed his legs over the side of the cot and stood. When his bare feet touched the floor, he wobbled a little, but managed to stand. He looked at his bony legs and arms. He had lost a good deal of weight since he fled his former master, and even more had been lost to the fever. Still, he was alive thanks to the old man. “Rag, I don't know how to thank you properly, but someday I hope I can. My name is Zanad.”
“I hope the Gods smile on you, Zanad,” he replied. “Thanks be all I need. Just being decent is all.” Rag helped Zanad put on his tunic, breeches and shoes, all of which the old man had cleaned as well as he could. “So, where will you be heading?”
Zanad shrugged his shoulders. “Can you point me in the direction of the nearest town? Nothing too big.”
Rag nodded. “It's up the road a few leagues. Called Grimwell. Not much to look at. But before you go, I got something for you.” He walked away and returned a moment later with a barbaric-looking leather glove. “It's for your hand, covering it up like.” He reached down and gently took Zanad's right hand. Folding down the two smaller fingers, he strapped the leather harness over the hand. When Rag was done, two fingers and a thumb protruded from the glove that extended down over his wrist and onto his forearm.
“Make you look like you is cripple,” Rag said. “Everybody think, poor man. No one think, runaway slave.”
Zanad flexed his hand. It hurt when he tried, but it seemed a small price to pay. He had to admit, the glove really did the job. “You made this yourself?” he asked. Rag nodded with a huge grin. “Again, I am in your debt.”
“Just get yourself out of here,” he said, offering a hand to Zanad. Once he was on his feet, Zanad felt somewhat better. It was the getting up part that was painful. But he owed it to Rag to get off the fief before Lord Durgas returned.
* * * *
Zanad reached Grimwell that afternoon. It was an unwalled town along a well-trafficked trade route, so Zanad knew he would be able to find work. Rag had told him that there was a priory as well as an inn, either of which may be places to find temporary work. Zanad found Grimwell to be a quiet place, having lived in a great city for the last decade. Yet, there were over a dozen people on the streets as he entered town, and he found that somewhat disconcerting.
Unconsciously adjusting the glove as he approached, he headed for the local inn, an establishment called the Final Rest Inn. Zanad was familiar with these sorts of places. They were the social centers for the local populace, and in this, he found Grimwell was no exception; the boisterous sounds could be heard from the street, even though it was only mid-afternoon.
The Final Rest was unusual in a number of other respects, however. It was the oldest structure that Zanad passed as he walked through town, and it was surrounded by a stone wall the height of two men. The gate into the compound was wide open, and did not appear to have been closed in some time. Within the wall, there were four buildings. On his left as he entered, Zanad passed the stables, which also had pens for chickens and swine. To his right was a small, stone structure that had the somber appearance of a mausoleum. Zanad though it might be someone's idea of a joke, but the stone used was the same as that used in the curtain wall around the Inn, and it had the same signs of aging. On the riverside of the compound to the left, there was a non-descript building, wooden with a thatched roof. Dominating the compound, on the riverside to the right, was the enormous Inn. The building was made of wood and stone, obviously built in sections over many years. By the noise emanating from the building through the double doors that served as a main entrance, Zanad assumed that one entered the Inn through its tavern.
He stood in the doorway to the Inn for some time before anyone noticed him. With his tattered clothing and nearly empty pockets, it did not take long before the proprietor descended upon him. “This is a reputable Inn for paying customers, not for charity,” the innkeeper said.
Zanad averted his eyes, something he was used to with authority figures. Consciously, he brought them up slowly to look the proprietor in the eyes. The innkeeper was shorter than Zanad by a half a head, and Zanad slouched to ensure he was not looking down at the man. Though there was only a handful of years difference in their ages, the innkeeper's hair was already showing some gray. Zanad decided immediately that this was the place to find work. The Inn must be doing well given Uthan's round face and even rounder belly. Zanad thought that his prospective employer had a kind, welcoming face, the sort of face an innkeeper should have.
“Begging your pardon, sir. I was just wondering if there might be some work for the likes of me. No charity is sought. If there's no work, I'll be going straightaway.”
When he saw the innkeeper step back to take a moment and collect himself, Zanad knew he had caught the man off guard. “Well, we can always use some help this time of year. Getting ready for winter, we are. Just a bunch of odd jobs. It doesn't pay much, though. Say, a silver penny a week for hard work and long days. You get two meals a day and a place to sleep in the hayloft. Nothing fancy, but it will do, I suspect by the looks of you. All right, but if you can't do the job cause of that hand, then off you go.”
“Yes sir, thank you, sir.”
“And enough of that `sir' stuff,” the innkeeper said. “The name's Uthan. Now get to the kitchen and get something to eat and then out to the barn to stack hay.”
A week passed by and Zanad was paid his wages. They were meager by city standards, but it was more money than Zanad had seen since becoming a slave years before. It was more, too, than the stable boy was making. An orphan named Lemm was short, stocky youth who looked like he was barely out of diapers. The two of them shared the stables as a home, though Zanad stuck to the hayloft and Lemm to one of the stalls.
As far as Zanad could tell, there were several more weeks of work still to be done, and that should make him enough money for food, travel and bribes he needed to make it to the Valithran border to the north. Once he was back in the kingdom of his birth, he would be safe. Slave or no slave. For now, his main concern was staying out of the view of the local authorities. This was to prove very difficult, he discovered. Each evening the Constable would ride up to the Inn for complimentary ale. In an effort to stay in good stead with the authorities and to ensure that potential thieves saw the constant presence of a sharp sword, the innkeeper found it an ale well spent.
As part of his duties, Zanad met any visitors arriving by horse and took their beasts to the stables. Zanad quickly found that this was excellent work because the more wealthy visitors were in the habit of placing a copper or even a silver penny in his hand to ensure that their mounts received hay and oats instead of grass. On the first evening taking in mounts, he saw the Constable riding towards him. He panicked. His first thoughts were to find a sword to defend himself.
Instead, he rushed back into the stables, looking around for Lemm. He found the boy shoveling manure out of one of the stalls. “Do you want to trade work for tonight?”
“What? You're joking, right?” Lemm said. He was used to adults being cruel and he was not sure about Zanad yet.
“Nope. Just for tonight though. There's one coming in now, so you better hurry,” Zanad said, holding a hand out for the shovel. Lemm did not think twice about it.
Each evening thereafter, Zanad would receive the visitors until he saw the Constable coming towards the Inn. Over a week went by before anyone noticed. One evening, Zanad was hauling a load of manure out of the stables, he found his way blocked by the innkeeper. “You prefer this over receiving out guests? By the Gods, I don't understand you, Zanad.”
Thinking quickly and not too clearly, Zanad replied, “I was just trying to give Lemm a chance. I didn't mean any harm.”
The innkeeper stared at Zanad. There was a long, slow passage of silence between them. Zanad had been trained not to talk to his superiors, so he did not. “No,” the innkeeper said, “I suppose you didn't mean any harm. Problem is, harm's been done. Lemm nearly ran over one of our guests with a horse. He can't be out front anymore.”
“I understand,” Zanad said.
“Mind you, if you get it into your head about trading off work again, talk with me first,” he said.
Zanad smiled. “Of course.”
His first meeting with the Constable was terrifying. He bowed his head as the Constable approached and took the reins when the horse nudged him. “You must be the new man that Uthan told me about. I'm Constable Oblis.”
Zanad's tried to reply, but found his voice was gone. His throat was as dry as a desert and no words were coming out. Oblis waited only a few moments for a reply and then stumbled up the steps into the Inn without a word. Once the Constable's horse was safely in a stall with some oats, Zanad went around back and threw up.
Another week passed and Zanad had nearly accumulated four silver pennies. Two more weeks of this and he could leave. He could not wait. It was not that the work was terrible or that the innkeeper was difficult to work for. Quite the contrary. He found his situation quite bearable. It was not the opulent manse he was used to living in, or the fine clothes he was used to wearing, but he was free.
He was getting used to the Constable, and had even managed to look him in the face. Oblis was an older man, perhaps twice Zanad's age. From the size of the belly that drooped over his belt, he was obviously not undernourished. The silver hair on his head was close cropped, unlike the unkempt beard on his face, which hung down to the top of his belly and contained more than a few bits of his lunch. Zanad even managed to say a few words to him. Of course, the extent of the conversation was limited to greetings and instructions on caring for his horse, but at least they were talking.
The problem Zanad was having with Grimwell was the glove. Rag had fashioned it to be constricting so that it would pass for real; but it caused his hand to cramp, and this got to be quite painful. He tried to cover up the pain at first, but he quickly realized that people associated it with him being cripple. Secretly, at night, alone in the hayloft, he removed the glove and allowed his hand to relax.
One evening as he waited for guests to arrive and depart, Zanad sat outside and watched the Crimson Moon rise. It was a harvest moon, full and looming large in the sky, casting its blood-red hue over the town. Many saw such celestial signs as ill omens, portents of bad times ahead. Since they had already taken in much of the harvest, Zanad did not pay the Crimson Moon much attention. He was amazed to see a shooting star cross the Moon's path moments later, however.
The shooting star was larger than others that Zanad had seen and its path was low in the heavens. Zanad thought he could even hear the object as it passed overhead making hissing and popping sounds. For a moment, he even thought that he could reach up and touch it. As quickly as it came, it disappeared to the east. Zanad was about to return to his chores when he heard a tremendous explosion. An instant later, the earth briefly shook around him. It crashed, he thought to himself. He had never heard of such a thing as a shooting star crashing before.
Many occupants of the Inn came streaming out the door now and looked into the night sky in the direction that Zanad stared. “What did you see?” Uthan asked him. “What made that horrible sound?”
“A star fell from the sky,” he replied. His curiosity fled as the crowd assembled. Quietly, he slipped away into the stables and hid in his loft. With nothing for them to see and with the innkeeper reminding them of the drinks they left on the tables inside, the crowd thinned and disappeared.
Two evenings later, as Zanad was greeting guests, a young boy appeared on the road from the west. As he covered the hundred paces remaining to the Inn, the youth stumbled several times. Finally, a dozen paces away, he collapsed to the ground and did not move. Zanad pushed open the door to the Inn and called for Uthan and then hurried off to help the young boy.
The boy had collapsed face down and, as he neared, Zanad could not tell what was wrong with him. With thoughts of the plague or other pestilence in his mind, Zanad hesitated over the boy. What if a simple touch could pass such things between them? These thoughts were only fleeting in his mind, however. Another Mortal lay at his feet and he was compelled by the Gods and all that was decent to assist him. He barely remembered where he had learned such things. It was a long time ago. Before the war. Before his capture and enslavement. Nevertheless, they were his truths now.
Reaching down, he turned the boy over and looked at his face. Eyes closed, the boy was perhaps only a dozen years old. Even in this light, Zanad could tell he was dead or close to it. His skin was pale and waxy. His features were distorted, reddish and bloated. Around his mouth, pustules had erupted and oozed. Zanad was about to check for a heartbeat when Uthan and several of the Inn's guests arrived.
“What are you doing there, Zanad?” Uthan yelled, grabbing him by the shoulder and pulling him away.
“I was trying to help,” Zanad said defensively.
Uthan shot him a stern look. “Who knows what's wrong with him? Did you want to go and get yourself killed? There's a healer staying at the Inn. We've sent for her.”
In the time it took for the healer to arrive, Zanad was sure the boy would die, if he were not that way already. But when a sister from the Order of Elan arrived, she pronounced the boy alive and suffering from a fever of the brain. Under the healer's supervision, they brought the youth into the Inn and placed him in an empty room. Zanad asked Uthan for permission to assist the healer, which the innkeeper grudgingly granted as long as it did not interfere with his chores.
Concerned that his clothing might contain substances that were throwing off one of the four humors of the body, the healer told Zanad to strip the boy and burn the clothes. As he removed the boy's tunic, he called for the healer. Across the boy's body were small, purplish-red welts. Resembling bee stings, there were black needle-like protrusions coming from the center of each of the welts.
“I have never seen such a thing before,” the healer said. “If these are bee stings, they would have to have stung the boy through his clothes and there would have to have been hundreds of bees.”
Fetching her healing bag, she took out a pair of small tweezers and removed one of the needles from a welt on the boy's chest. The needle was no longer than a fingernail and it was narrow, less than the diameter of a piece of straw. It ended in a jagged edge, clearly not intended to be withdrawn easily. The very tip of the needle was hollow. Though it was empty now, the healer could only speculate as to what it might have contained.
Occasionally, while the healer worked, Uthan stuck his head in the door to see how things progressed. “I've just learned who the boy is,” he said on one of those visits. He looked haggard to Zanad, who was sure the innkeeper had not gotten any sleep either. “You'll be well rewarded to save him, healer. He's Lord Durgas' youngest son.”
Once the healer had removed the last of the needles and cleaned the wounds, the two waited. A few hours later, however, the boy's breathing became increasingly shallow, eventually disappearing completely. “There was nothing I could do,” the healer said with some desperation in her voice. “He was too far gone.” She gathered her things and left.
Uthan appeared in the doorway, his sour expression telling that he knew the boy had passed. “I'll get Zemm to give me a hand burying him,” Zanad said.
“No,” Uthan said. “The boy needs to be brought to Lord Durgas' winery at first light. I'm sure the Lord will want some kind of Church service and wouldn't be too happy if the boy were already interred. I'll send for the Constable. You go with him and drive the wagon.”
Zanad had long given up his fear of the Constable, judging the man too inept to discover his secret. But going with the man to Lord Durgas' winery was another matter. There was someone out at the winery that knew his truth. What if Raglok panicked? He might have to run again, when he was so close to having the money he needed to get home. Try as he might, however, he could think of no way out of going with the Constable.
After trying to rest until sunrise, Zanad rose and put the boy's body onto the wagon. He waited for another two hours for the Constable to arrive. Ready to chastise the man, Zanad could smell the liquor on Oblis' breath from two paces away and decided to wait until the man to sober up. Before they left, the Constable removed the blanket covering the boy's body and studied his face. “Nasty bit of business, this is,” he said, slurring his speech slightly. “Did the healer have any idea what might have done this?”
“No,” Zanad replied. “Thought it might have been a bug, like a bee or something.”
“That's not like any bug I've ever seen,” the Constable replied.
The wagon moved slowly down the rutted road with the Oblis' horse riding behind it. It took nearly two hours for them to reach the winery, and the Constable slept in the saddle most of the way. Zanad was happy for it. Despite the cause for their visit, Zanad found his mood improving appreciably as they headed out of Grimwell and into the country.
That changed when they reached the edge of the winery. As trees gave way to grape vines, Zanad could tell something was wrong and shook the Constable, who woke reluctantly and irritably. Pointing, Zanad showed Oblis a trail of ashes that led through the fields, down to the manor house, which lay in smoking ruins, and through to the hill on the other side of the house. Whatever had caused the fire was nowhere to be seen, but it had not ignited the surrounding fields; it only seemed to scorch whatever it passed through.
Continuing on the road to the skeleton of the manor house, they passed by rotting carcasses of several pigs and two horses. Cautiously, Zanad jumped down to examine the first of these that they encountered, a beautiful black stallion no more than three years of age. The horse was riddled with the same needles that the dead boy had, obviously producing the same results.
“It may not be safe for us, either,” Zanad said.
The Constable nodded. “We don't have any choice. Lord Durgas may be down there. We have to find out.”
“Well, at least we should leave the wagon here,” Zanad said. “No need to have these animals injured.” The Constable agreed and they the feedbags over the noses of the two horses and they proceeded on foot to the manor house.
The building had once been a grand place, with a dozen rooms and a great hall. Built of stone and thatch, all that stood now were the blackened granite outer walls. Whatever had caused the fire, it had been an inferno, reducing the entire contents of the place to ashes. Yet the fire had been contained somehow, leaving the barn standing only a dozen paces away.
The main structure of the barn was also constructed of stone and thatch, with the inner lofts and stalls built from wood. The door to the barn was open and they walked in somewhat cautiously. Zanad immediately noticed how quiet it was. Not a single sound could be heard; not a chicken or a cow or a horse; not even a cricket. There were no animals in the barn at all. As they walked through, they heard a whimper from the loft above.
The Constable had his sword out in an instant and quickly ascended the ladder to the loft. Whoever it was tried to get away, but there was only one ladder. “Come out of there,” Oblis ordered. Slowly the figure rose out of the hay and Zanad's knees went weak. It was the old man, Raglok, who had befriended Zanad a short time ago.
“They not got you yet!” Rag declared. “Git while the gittin's good.” Zanad's heart skipped a beat when he thought the old man was about to give him away. Then it occurred to him that the old man had not even recognized him.
The Constable was calm and lowered his sword. He did not put it away, however. “We're not going anywhere,” he said. “Who are you hiding from? Where is everyone?”
“They is all dead…no, worse. The dead sleep, but these don't sleep. They live in the wine caves now.” Rag was barely coherent through his ranting and mumbling. Oblis led him down the ladder. It took them some time to coax Rag out of the barn and back up to the horse and wagon. He rambled all the way and the Constable tried to make him make sense. Zanad had better luck.
“Rag, do you know me?” Zanad asked.
The old man stared at him for a little while, his eyes wild with fear and exhaustion. Finally, recognition settled over them. “Yeah,” Rag said, “you is….”
“That's right,” Zanad interrupted, “I visited you a while ago.” Rag nodded and reached down to touch Zanad's gloved hand. A slight, though crooked smile crept over the old man's face.
“When did the bad things start?” Zanad asked.
“After the star fell out of the sky,” Rag replied, looking back down the road towards the manor house. “It burned everything…killed all them in the house…and crashed down there,” he said, pointing to the hill beyond.
“Then what happened?”
“Lord Durgus went with some men to where it crashed. They came back but they was dead.”
The Constable interrupted them. “This is ridiculous,” he said. “It's obvious that he's cracked. Why don't you take him back to the healer and maybe we can make some sense of this.”
Zanad was about to suggest to the Constable that they check out the place first, when he looked up at the wagon. Everything seemed normal except for the blanket they had used to cover the boy. It was on the ground near the wheels of the wagon. Zanad pointed it out to the Constable. As they approached and were able to see into the wagon, Zanad's fears were realized. The body was gone.
“This doesn't make sense,” the Constable said, stating the obvious. “Who would have taken it?” Zanad began examining the wagon.
“No one took it,” Rag said. “It walks with the others now.”
“Don't be an idiot,” Oblis said to him. “The boy was dead.”
“Constable,” Zanad said. “Take a look at this.” At the back of the wagon, Zanad pointed to the footprints in the dust of the road. A single set of small prints leading away from the wagon.
“Something very odd is happening here, and I do not intend to leave without an explanation,” he said. “We're going down to these wine caves to see if there's anything there. If not, I'm going to take this one back to town and extract the truth from him even if it costs him his life.” The old man just stared blankly. Zanad was about to object, but realized it would make no difference. He knew the Constable had no choice in the matter while Lord Durgas may still be alive. If they left now, the Constable would be stripped of his office and left for destitute.
The three men walked down the road once again, past the manor house and through the fields towards the hill beyond. The road nearly paralleled the burnt path from the manor house. As they approached the base of the hill, they could tell that the road led directly to a cave entrance that had been widened and was supported with wooden beams. A score of paces away, however, they could see that the burnt path ended in the hillside. Whatever had caused it, had collided with the hill and, in its passing, had collapsed part of the hill on top of itself.
As they approached the cave opening, Rag began to tremble in fear. They tried to drag him along, but his body went limp. “Maybe we should just leave him out here and we'll collect him when we come back out,” Zanad suggested. The Constable gave the old man a couple of more tugs and then shrugged his shoulders and nodded.
They left Rag at the base of the hill and went to the entrance. With little sunlight making its way into the cave, passage would have been impossible. They found an oil lantern hanging just inside, however. Once lit, they found the place contained a few dozen small casks and wooden boxes, each marked with its contents, which largely consisted of dried meat, grains, oil, a bolt of poor quality linen, and dried herbs. There were also several bundles of wooden sticks with cloth tied to the tops. Torches, Zanad realized. There did not seem to be anything out of the ordinary to Zanad.
The back of this cave opened into another passage and Oblis led the way, with Zanad holding the lantern behind him. As they entered the passage, the air became cooler and carried a musty smell. The Constable had again taken his sword out of its scabbard and was holding it low and ready. In the back of his mind, Zanad recalled memories from his youth. As squire to his father, he had trained to use a sword before the war. He had served with warriors whose swords never left their sides. He came to the conclusion that the Constable had seldom, if ever, used that sword in battle. He might have used it against a vagrant or two, but the blade was not ready to attack or parry from the position it was in.
The passage was a short one, only a few paces long, and it descended gently. Then it opened into a larger cave. Here, dozens of larger and smaller casks stood stacked and ready, almost all of them empty. These were the casks that would be filled with wine, once the grapes had been harvested and fermented. Again, Zanad thought to himself, nothing unusual.
Another, narrower passage led away from this cave, however, this one descended sharply and was twice as long as the last one. The passage ended in a cavern much larger than the previous two. A dozen paces away, beyond the range of the light from Zanad's lantern, a dim light illuminated the edges of an alcove or another cavern. From out of the gloomy alcove stepped a man who stood a head taller than the Constable. Dressed in chain mail, yet covered in dirt, he was carrying a wooden shovel.
“Lord Durgas. Thank the Gods,” the Constable said, bowing.
“Yes, what is it?” the man replied. He had stopped at the very edge of the lantern's light.
“I am Constable Oblis from Grimwell, my lord. We brought your son back with us from town….” As he spoke, the boy that had been dead in their wagon hours before came out of the dark and stood by his father.
“Yes, well thank you for bringing him back to us,” Lord Durgas said.
“What is going on here, my lord?” the Constable asked.
“Very important things, my good man. Let me show them to you,” he said. With a wave of his hand, he said, “Come and see.”
The Constable began moving towards Lord Durgas and Zanad thought to follow but could not. Fear had him firmly in its grip and he could not make his feet move. Still holding the lantern, he watched as the Constable slowly closed the distance between himself and Lord Durgas. As they reached the alcove, Oblis suddenly cried out, “What in the name of the Gods is that thing?”
Zanad heard Lord Durgas reply, “It's here to help you. Don't make me use force.”
With the sound of metal on metal, the Constable reappeared in the light, backing up towards Zanad and the passage. He was defending himself with sword and dagger against two warriors. Zanad watched as Oblis received a wound in his leg and another in his arm.
Something was odd about these warriors, Zanad thought. They were making attacks but their movements seemed to be slightly delayed, as if their arms and legs were weighed down. Still, between the two of them, they were slowly killing the Constable and something had to be done quickly.
The passage opening was narrow and only allowed one warrior to attack at a time. With their advantage removed, the Constable was able to defend himself, driving his sword into the warrior opposing him no less than three times. The warrior seemed unfazed. Taking up a defensive position, Oblis called to Zanad.
“I'm getting weaker. I think I've lost too much blood,” he said. “Help me you idiot!”
Zanad looked around for anything that might be used as a weapon. He was about to retrace his steps to the other caves when an idea leapt into his mind. He placed the lantern on the ground and, in the dark, quickly retraced his steps back to the first cave. He could hear the Constable yelling obscenities at him as he left, but he ignored them. When he reached the first cave, he removed the leather glove and tied it to his belt, and then he lit a torch and put it into one of the wall sconces. Quickly taking inventory, he picked up the bolt of cloth, two small casks and several torches, and headed back to where he had left the Constable through the pitch-black passage. He found Oblis leaning against the wall of the passage, barely parrying the sword strokes of the warrior. Without drawing attention to himself, Zanad laid out two large cuts of the cloth around the floor near the passage and, opening one of the casks, coated them with oil. Then he took two of the torches, coated them in oil and lit them.
Now he appeared behind the Constable with two torches, one in each hand. “I thought you had run away, you coward,” Oblis yelled. Zanad ignored him. He pushed one of the torches at the face of the warrior and held it there for a moment. The warrior yelled and flailed at the torch. Reaching down, Zanad grabbed the Constable and dragged him out of the passage. Ignoring the Constable's yells and complaints, he took Oblis' sword and returned to the opening of the passage and grabbed one of the pieces of cloth by the end. As the warrior came through, he stepped on the other end of the cloth and Zanad ran around him twice to wrap it around him. As the warrior struggled with the cloth, Zanad put the torch to it. It was ablaze in a matter of moment.
Zanad spun around just in time to block the sword of the second warrior. It had been years since Zanad had felt a sword in his hand and his reflexes were slow. Fortunately, so were the warrior's. In the heat of the moment, memories of training with his father came rushing back to Zanad. This was not battle but personal combat, and his father had taught patience and observation in such encounters. Zanad allowed the warrior to attack several times, watching for weaknesses and opening. It took little time for him to realize the warrior was used to fighting with a shield in his left hand; without it, the side was exposed. He parried the man's blade and lunged, stabbing the man through the torso. The warrior did not falter, but instead swung again at Zanad.
Stepping back for a moment, Zanad realized he was in trouble. Taking the sword in two hands, he feigned an attack and the warrior countered, stepping right into Zanad's real attack. He brought the sword down with all his might on the warrior's neck. The sword buried itself in the man's torso and the head dangled from its roots. Yet the warrior did not fall. More slowly and less accurately, the warrior raised his sword again and came at Zanad.
Zanad looked over at the burnt warrior that now lay unmoving on the floor. Fire killed these things. Instead of parrying the blade, Zanad ducked out of the way and grabbed the edge of the other oiled cloth on the ground. With the oil-wet cloth flapping behind him, he ran around the warrior and threw the cloth over his head. Zanad grabbed the rest of the cloth and wrapped it over the warrior's shoulders and around his waist. Then he set the fire to it and turned his attentions back to the Constable. Though none were immediately life threatening, Oblis' injuries were so extensive that Zanad knew they would never get away from the winery without help. He needed a way to slow his pursuers. With one cask of oil on hand, he returned to the opening in the passage. Like most of the cave construction, it was made from wooden beams holding up tons of rock and dirt. He began coating the wood in oil. Finally, with half a cask of oil remaining, he broke it open in the passageway.
He returned Oblis' sword to the Constable and picked up the finer sword for himself. As he had thought, the weapon was well balanced and lighter than the Constable's. Gathering up Oblis, who had ceased complaining about Zanad's cowardice, he threw the torch on the oil and it ignited. As they left the cave, smoke was beginning to fill it.
Rag was gone when they came out. Neither of them was surprised. Zanad nearly carried the Constable back up to the wagon and helped him in. He tied Oblis' horse to the back of the wagon and got in. As he was gathering up the reins, he felt a dagger at his neck. It was the Constable's. “A slave this whole time and I never realized it,” Oblis said. “I must be getting feebleminded. Given the way you handled a sword back there, I'm willing to bet there's a large bounty on your head. Isn't that right, slave?”
Zanad turned to face the Constable and smiled. “I am a victim of a war that ended years ago. Besides, I just saved your life. I guess I misjudged you. You haven't any honor at all.”
The Constable slapped Zanad in the face. A trickle of blood oozed from Zanad's mouth. “Slaves only talk when they are told to, understand? Now, let's get going.”
Zanad knew what it meant to go back with Oblis. At best he would be returned to his former master and whipped. He would not go back. He could not…even if it meant dying now. The reins fell from Zanad's hands. “I said, let's get going,” Oblis yelled. “If you don't get this wagon moving now I will cut you. Maybe I'll just leave a scar from your eye to your throat.”
Again, he thought of his father's training. Patience and observation. Zanad took a deep, calming breath and released it slowly. Examining the Constable's body, Zanad noted the several wounds that were bleeding. One was on his thigh, not too far from Zanad's hand. In the blink of an eye, Zanad's right hand shot out and hit Oblis in the open wound. At the same time, Zanad's left hand grabbed the dagger at his neck, which nicked him before he was able to stop it. The Constable howled in pain as Zanad hit him and kept hitting him until Oblis dropped the dagger.
The Constable begged for mercy. Zanad chuckled. “Very funny,” he said, while he began removing Oblis' armor. After disciplining the Constable several times for complaining, Zanad completed the process and put the chainmail on himself. It was a little large, but it would do. Putting the Constable's cloak around his shoulders, he returned and placed the wagon's reins in the man's hands. “Remember, you need to bring back enough men to clear those caves. Only fire works against them.”
The Constable nodded. Zanad took a silver ring from Oblis' hand and also removed his coin purse. Weighing the bag in his hand, he said, “I was not expecting to get home this soon, but you have made my early departure possible. For that, I thank you.” He untied the Constable's horse and jumped up into the saddle.
“It's best if you forget you ever met me,” Zanad said. “You can do that, I hope. It's the least you could do in return for saving your miserable life.” He slapped the horse drawing the wagon and sent it up the road towards Grimwell. When it had disappeared down the road among the tall vines, he headed into the woods and north towards home.